NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
by Dr. Robert R. Seyda
GOSPEL OF MATTHEW
A contemporary scholar of Chrysostom’s in the early church viewed our Lord’s saying about His coming, this way: “This teaching means that the separation of the faithful from the unfaithful will consist in one being accepted and the other abandoned. For, like the prophet says, when the wrath of God rises, the saints will be hidden in God’s chambers but the faithless will be left exposed to celestial fire.1 The two in the field, therefore, represent the faithful and the unfaithful, both of whom will be surprised by the day of the Lord in the midst of the world, in the course of their life’s work. They will be separated, one taken and the other left. It will be the same for the two grinding at the mill, which represents the work of the law. For only some of the Jews, like Elijah, believed through the apostles that they must be justified by faith. One group will be taken up through the faith that produces good works, and the other group will be abandoned in the fruitless works of the law, grinding in vain at a mill that will never produce heavenly food. The two lying in bed are proclaiming the repose of the Lord after His Passion, which both Catholics and nonconformist confess alike. But because the truth of the Catholic faith preaches the unity of the Father and the Son, which we call their deity, whereas the false doctrine of nonconformist attacks this unity with many different insults, one of the two lying in bed will be taken up but the other will be left behind. For by accepting one and rejecting the other, God’s judgment will prove the merit of each confession.”2
So Chrysostom goes on in his commentary to add the following: “If ordinary persons knew when they were going to die, they would surely be striving earnestly at that hour. In order, therefore, that they may strive not at that hour only, He does not tell them the hour or day. He wants to keep them on their toes looking for it, that they may be always striving. This is why He made the end of each person’s life so uncertain.”3 So it is clear that this early church preacher does not tie Jesus’ words here to His sudden appearance in the sky to transform the living and resurrect dead believers to meet Him in the air, but to their appointed time of death.
Chrysostom continues: “In this passage, Jesus openly implies that He Himself is Lord. Nowhere before has He spoken of this so distinctly. But here He seems to me also to be putting to shame those who remain careless about His lordship. They take much more care about a thief taking their money than about their own soul. Those who care about their house and do not want their possessions stolen take measures against the thief. They watch; they are prepared for the thief. So it is with you. You do not know when he will come. But you know assuredly that he will come. If you do not continue to watch, you will not be ready on that day. You will be unprepared. Destruction will come in your sleep. If the person had known when the thief was coming, he would have been prepared. So be like the one who is prepared at all times, so you will escape free. Having then mentioned the judgment, He directs His thoughts next to teachers, speaking of honorable and dishonorable actions. His discourse closes with that which is alarming, for He speaks first of those who do right, then of those who continue in sin.”4
This certainly allows for a question on whether or not those who examined and interpreted these verses within the first 400 years after our Lord’s ascension back into heaven, are more accurate than any exegesis by Reform church doctors, Wesleyan theologians, Baptist scholars, Pentecostal expositors, or current writers are today. Since all of them are examining the same documents written by the original apostles, then it must be a matter of perspective relative to time. In other words, the closer one gets to an object, the better they are able to see and define what comes into view. This means, that what was once said in the form of a metaphor or a figurative speech, takes on a form more easily identifiable. By that I mean, what was once described by John in his Revelation as flying locust with men’s faces that could destroy, may today be seen today as Black Hawk or Apache helicopters with missiles.5 But one thing that will remain constant is that this pertains to those living at the time this happens. And, according to what Jesus said, those who remain steadfast and committed in their faith will be the ones who will be saved.
Verses 43-44: “What would a homeowner do if he knew when a thief was coming? You know he would be ready and not let the thief break in. So you also must be ready. The Son of Man will come at a time when you don’t expect Him.”
Scholars take the words that Matthew records here to indicate that Jesus is laying the groundwork for explaining the reason why this date and time was being kept secret. His intention was to forewarn that if people knew the exact time, they would then be able to live the way they wanted to up until the last moment before they finally repented and made themselves ready for His coming. However, since the precise time is not announced, they must be ready at all times for His sudden appearance.
Then Jesus adds the value of being prepared for His coming. This time, He focuses on those who are chosen to warn others about getting ready. He uses the idea of someone breaking into a house unexpectedly. We find a similar comment by a well-known Jewish Rabbi who asked: “Why does the Torah mention ‘breaking in,’ because it is the general practice for thieves to break in at night.”6 Paul used this same metaphor,7 as well as the apostle John in his revelation.8
Bishop Hilary gives us his impression of what Jesus is trying to say with this illustration. He writes: “It is to teach us that our ignorance of the date of His return (which His silence has kept hidden from everyone) is not without its usefulness, Christ warns us to keep all His commandments. We should also be occupied with constant prayer in order to guard against the coming of the thief. For the thief is the devil who seeks to invade our bodily homes with the darts of his thoughts and allurements in order to ruin us while we are sleepy and careless. It is good therefore that we are prepared. Our ignorance of the day of Christ’s return should provoke us to be careful as we eagerly await His coming.”9
It appears that the bishop does anticipate the return of Christ and does not solely tie this to one’s death when He sends His angels to gather their soul. But later on, one church scholar gives his impression: “Does the soul not know when the thief has gained access through one of these entrances? Indeed, it does not know until it has been led into sin. The soul must be vigilant, therefore, and close all its ports of entry. The mouth should be occupied with holy speech, the ears with pious sounds; the eyes with a vision of the wondrous works of God; and the mind with heavenly thoughts. It is not sufficient merely to refrain from speaking, hearing, seeing or thinking evil things. For to do that is only to block the access of good spirits along with the bad. Whoever renounces evil but fails to take up the good is said to have left the gates to his soul open. The enemy enters easily when he finds them vacant. It is necessary therefore that the portals to the soul of the just not only be free of evil but also be fully occupied with the good, lest evil find a way to gain access.”10
But there would be no reason for our Lord to talk about such a sudden and spectacular event if it only pertained to being vigilant against the temptation of sin that could lead to death. However, this anonymous writer goes on to explain: “The head of the household represents the human soul, the thief is the devil, the house is the body, the doors are the mouth and ears and the windows are the eyes. Like the thief who gains access through the doors and windows to despoil the householder, the devil also finds easy access to the soul of a man through his mouth, ears, and eyes to take him captive. This is why Jeremiah wrote, ‘For death entered through our windows.’11 If you wish to be secure, install a bolt on your door, which is to say, put the law of the fear of God in your mouth so that you can say with the psalmist, ‘I will guard my ways that I might not sin with my tongue. I will put a guard at my mouth.’12”13
So we can see that from the earliest times in Church history scholars and theologians were like those who are looking through a distorted glass, trying to figure out what they were seeing. Even the apostle Paul admitted this to the Corinthians when we said: “Now we see things imperfectly, like puzzling reflections in a mirror, but then we will see everything with perfect clarity. All that I know now is partial and incomplete, but then I will know everything completely, just as God now knows me completely.”14 If God would have wanted us to know the exact time and date of Jesus’ birth, He would have told the prophets of old. But He did give them signs to look for. Even then, many did not believe that the baby born in Bethlehem of a virgin was the Son of God. So it is obvious that He also had no interest in telling His children the exact day and time of His Son’s return to gather the faithful. But He did give signs to look for. And as in the first event, there will be some who will still not believe in His return even after it happens. But for those who want to be part of His return, His message was clear: Live each day as though it could happen at any time. Just be ready when it does.
1 Possible reference to Revelation 20
2 Hilary of Poitiers: On Matthew 26:5
3 Chrysostom: Matthew, Homily 77.2-3
5 See Revelation 9:7-10
6 Moses Maimonides, Mishnah Torah, Sefer Nezikim, Tractate Genevah, Ch. 9, Hilchot 8
7 1 Thessalonians 5:2
8 Revelation 16:15
9 Hilary of Poitiers: On Matthew, 26.6
10 Incomplete Work on Matthew: Homily 51
11 Jeremiah 9:21
12 Psalm 39:1
13 Incomplete Work on Matthew, ibid.
14 1 Corinthians 13:12 – New Living Translation